Ray of hope for monkey species near extinction

Joint effort between agencies in S'pore and Malaysia to boost forest habitat for Raffles' banded langur; more research also planned

Researcher Andie Ang chairs the Raffles’ banded langur working group tasked with forming an action plan to guide and implement the conservation work. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

A rare, reclusive monkey native to Singapore is on the brink of extinction, but a new strategy is in place to ensure its kind can live on.

The Raffles' banded langur, also known here as the banded leaf monkey, once thrived across the island. But urbanisation has whittled down its population to a paltry 60 at most, according to 2010 data.

However, help has arrived for the black-and-white leaf eaters. A strategy to conserve them was yesterday launched by Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh.

A collaborative effort between several organisations in Singapore and Malaysia - such as the Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the National Parks Board (NParks) and universities from both sides of the Causeway - will involve enhancing the forest habitat for the monkeys.

This will be done through reforestation and the provision of more forested habitats, such as new nature parks, which will allow the monkeys to move between forest fragments. These "green corridors" will give the monkeys a larger area to forage for food, thus expanding their living area from the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, where they can now be found, to nearby forest patches.

More research into the creatures, as well as the development of education material to raise awareness of the monkeys, is also on the cards.

Compared to its cheeky cousin, the long-tailed macaque, the Raffles' banded langur is less known, perhaps due to its shyness and preference for staying high up in forest canopies.

While its reclusiveness ensures it does not come into conflict with humans, it has also made it hard to study them. But the new initiative will put more eyes and ears on the ground to observe them.

Scientists and naturalists from Malaysia, such as those from the Malaysian Nature Society and the National University of Malaysia, will collaborate with Singapore organisations such as WRS, NParks and the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore) to conduct surveys and research, for instance.

The Raffles' banded langur, which can be found only in Singapore and Johor in Malaysia, is one of three recognised sub-species of the banded langur, commonly known as the banded leaf monkey.

Each of the three sub-species is found in different parts of South-east Asia, and little is known about them. Singaporean researcher Andie Ang, 31, who has been studying the Raffles' banded langur since 2008 under National University of Singapore Professor Rudolf Meier, believes the strategy will allow more data to be collected.

"Plans to conserve the langur must be backed by data collected across its range to include the different populations in Singapore and Malaysia, and not just in specific geographical areas," she said.

Ms Ang chairs the Raffles' banded langur working group - a committee of experts formed under the new strategy - tasked with forming an action plan to guide and implement the conservation work, which will receive $250,000 in funding over the next two years from the WRS Conservation Fund.

Dr Sonja Luz, WRS director of conservation and research, said: "Together with NParks, we are fully committed to be a part of the pioneering approach to manage the species over the long term, so Singapore does not have a primate going extinct on our watch."

While the newly launched conservation strategy targets the Raffles' banded langur, Ms Ang believes information gleaned from it could inform future conservation strategies for the other two sub-species.

Chairman of the Johor branch of the Malaysian Nature Society Vincent Chow told The Straits Times: "Johor is very rich in biodiversity but we don't have enough specialised researchers.

"Any scientific research will go a long way towards unravelling the secrets of Johor's flora and fauna and (help in making) the first step towards preserving our natural heritage.

"(The society) will assist in any way we can in the species action plan for the Raffles' banded langur, and welcomes more cross-border collaborative projects."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline Ray of hope for monkey species near extinction. Subscribe